More than 3,500 Pennsylvanians could be on the road to a better life as part of a program to expunge minor marijuana convictions.

This is great, and long overdue.

But government officials could have done better. If they thought it through and went a little further, many more deserving people could also benefit.

Initiative introduced last month by Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman allowed people to apply for a one-time, large-scale, accelerated pardon if they were convicted of possession of marijuana or a small amount of marijuana for personal use.

People could only apply if they had no criminal record other than those crimes.

People who have committed other offences, e.g driving while intoxicated as long as they were smoking weed, they had no right. There were no drug dealers either.

The application deadline was the end of September. There were 3,539 applications, including 118 from Lehigh County and 94 from Northampton County, Molly Bilinski of The Morning Call reported this recently.

These numbers are disappointing. I expected more. There should be more people who have the right.

Some probably didn’t know about it. Others, unfortunately, were excluded due to the fact that the program did not take into account an important factor – drug addiction.

People charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana are usually charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, such as a pipe or paper.

But the program did not treat the paraphernalia charge as a pardonable offense.

This excludes those whose only records are minor possession charges, with paraphernalia.

What were Wolfe, Fetterman and the state board of pardons thinking? They probably understand that in order to use weed, people have to smoke it in something.

They blew up.

While the goal was to have a broad, fast-track pardon to help people clear their names so they could find better jobs and better housing instead of being branded as criminals, the program also did not pardon the charges associated with them.

Thousands more people, perhaps tens of thousands, could be eligible if the program took this into account.

Figures provided to me by the Lehigh Valley Institute for Justice show that 819 cases in Lehigh and Northampton counties consisted of pardon-only offenses plus a paraphernalia charge between January 1, 2018, and March 21, 2021.

That’s quite a few cases in just two counties in a short amount of time.

At my request, the institute analyzed the database of all criminal cases opened in the two districts during this period.

The institute recently cited the data in a report questioning why tax dollars are being wasted prosecuting people for small amounts of alcohol.

The report notes that during that period, 16% of all criminal cases in Lehigh and Northampton counties involved marijuana-related crimes other than drug delivery charges. Of these cases, only 4% also involved violent crimes.

The institute found that black people are 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

“Why are we wasting valuable law enforcement resources in an era of rampant gun violence on what is legal in much of the country, and in particular, just across the Delaware River into New Jersey“, the executive director of the institute, Joe Welsh, said in a press release.

He told me that as he analyzed the data, it became clear that not including the paraphernalia fee in the new state pardon program could be a problem.

“It’s definitely going to make more people fit,” Welsh said. “When we looked at the data, it certainly made sense that it should be included.”

I asked Wolf and Fetterman’s offices why paraphernalia fees were not included. They sent me to the Pardon Commission.

Celeste Trusty’s board secretary told me about another expedited pardon program PA Marijuana Amnesty Projectcreated in 2019, open to people with paraphernalia and other non-violent marijuana beliefs.

“We recognize that marijuana possession convictions can also be followed by other convictions, and our goal is to help as many people as possible on the path to a clean record through new and existing pardon pathways,” she told me.

That’s not to say the paraphernalia couldn’t also be part of a one-off large-scale pardon initiative.

The goal of this initiative is to solve the simplest cases quickly and immediately. Decisions are expected to be made before Wolf and Fetterman’s terms expire in January.

There is still time to fix this problem. The state should expand the program options and open another application window.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or at